Sheryl Sandberg gave a commencement speech that has gone viral this week. Sandberg, she of Facebook and Lean In fame, didn’t talk to the Berkeley graduating class about finding inspiration and embracing successes. Instead, she told them that “In the face of any challenge, you can choose joy and meaning.” She took an insightful approach, and tasked herself with explaining the realities of life and death.
Sandberg’s husband, Dave, died suddenly and unexpectedly a little over a year ago. She describes the shock and grief in terms that are understandable to any survivor of a tragedy:
“The easy days ahead will be easy. It is the hard days that challenge you to your very core, that determine who you are.”
” You will be defined not just by what you achieve but by how you survive.”
“Sometimes we want option A, but all we have is option B.”
Cancer survivors are nodding their heads along in agreement to these words. We are victims of shock and grief as well. Our bodies and our psyches carry the damage long after surgeries and treatments end. Sandberg eloquently detailed her plan to make peace with the challenges she faces, and how to live with gratitude and appreciation even when it seems impossible to do so.
I suspect there is a little more to it than that. I believe we are tasked to find joy and meaning in times of success and happiness, and also during times of pain and sorrow. But it is the routine and commitment to our daily lives that contribute the most to our definitions of ourselves, and how we are perceived by others.
Sandberg touches on this concept. She relates that the best advice she was given for her children was to get them back to their routines without delay. Ten days after her husband’s death, she says, they went back to school.
When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, one of the first things my husband and I agreed on what that our focus would be on keeping our four children’s schedules as normal as possible. A steady stream of friends and family were on hand to assist us, and Jason made it a point to be the primary caregiver as often as he could. We believed that the kids would be equipped with resilience if we gave them the comfort of the familiar.
Fatigue has been a stable side effect of surgeries, treatments, and medications for me. For long stretches of time there wasn’t much I could do to help with the kids, but the one thing I could do consistently was prop myself up with pillows and read.
That’s our Option B. The tenacious bonds among us were forged by snuggling together while reading books. From the time they were newborn infants up until this very day, we find time to read together, meeting at various levels of comprehension. When Baby #2 came along, he nursed to the sounds of pages being turned and of my voice reading library books to Baby #1. Reading to the older kids while tending to the infant became how the entire family could spend time together when the baby needed attention. Baby #3 caused much laughter when he would stop drinking to swivel his little head around for a better view of the book. When one of the kids is having a mental meltdown, my directives are consistent: Sit down on the couch. We are going to read a few books together. By the second or third book, the escapism and mental stimulation have done their jobs, and we can hit the reset button.
Option B doesn’t have to be a long-term solution to the problem. Focusing on the present and giving yourself permission to deal with what’s in your head is liberating. This is why Art is important to humanity: it gives us a vehicle of expression, through literature or painting or music or some other mode. Whether with our own creations or through the imagination of someone else, we can give ourselves permission to feel, experience, and then, ultimately, release.
Here are a few favorite books of ours that have stood the test of time, from Baby #1 right on down to Baby #4.
Please, Puppy, Please by Spike Lee and Tonya Lewis Lee. Illustrated by Kadir Nelson
A boy and girl do their best to keep their puppy entertained and under control, with the superb art of master illustrator Nelson driving the story.
Dear Zoo by Rod Campbell
A classic flap book with excellent pacing and illustrations.
Let’s Go for a Drive! by Mo Willems
The master of engaging and hilarious children’s literature is, without a doubt, a staple in our household. I imagine, when my kids are adults, many of their happiest childhood memories will be tied to the works of Mr. Willems.
Big and Little by Margaret Miller
Margaret Miller understands the silliness and joy of childhood, and captures it all through her camera.
Max Cleans Up by Rosemary Wells
Both Type A kids and free spirits alike will enjoy the antics of big sister Ruby and her little brother Max.
Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein
Childhood is not complete without quoting Silverstein’s work and feeling a bit creeped out by his drawings.
The Wheels on the Bus by Paul O. Zelinsky
Moving parts. Enough said.
If you Give a Pig a Pancake by Laura Numeroff. Illustrated by Felicia Bond
This book is one in the “If You Give a…” series. All of them are classics.
Woolbur by Leslie Helakoski. Illustrated by Lee Harper.
A fun-loving story that celebrates individuality and validates its benefits.
Skippyjon Jones by Judy Schachner
No one else has an imagination quite like this little kitten.
Froggy Goes to Bed by Jonathan London. Illustrated by Frank Remkiewicz
This frog’s loud “Wha-a-a-t?” is our family chant.
The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate Di Camillo
For anyone who has ever loved someone or something so much that being without him/her/it causes heartache and pain, this book is for you. Tissues are required.
The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardobe by C.S Lewis
This book was my gateway to Narnia as a child, and I spent years rereading the series with pleasure.